Tibetan protesters and Buddhist monks stage a peace rally in 2008 © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

In 2009, a Buddhist monk doused himself in gasoline on the main street of Ngaba, a town in the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau. Calling out for the return of the Dalai Lama from exile in India, he set himself on fire.

For much of the previous year, demonstrations had been breaking out across Tibetan areas. Even still, such an extreme act of protest was genuinely shocking, a rebuke to the claim that Tibetans are happy under Chinese rule.

Since then, 156 Tibetans have self-immolated. Around a third of the young men and women have come from Ngaba. Their technique has become more sophisticated over time: to make sure there is no chance of rescue, some have wrapped themselves in quilts and wire, while others drank gasoline so they burned from the inside.

“Why were so many of [Ngaba’s] residents willing to destroy their bodies by one of the most horrific methods imaginable?” asks Barbara Demick at the start of her outstanding book Eat the Buddha, every page packed with insight and gripping detail. In telling the story of Ngaba and its tradition of rebellion, she has written a book not only about modern Tibet but one that helps explain the current, poisonous moment in China, with the crackdown in Hong Kong, ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang and strident nationalism of Xi Jinping.

It cannot be emphasised enough just how hard it is to produce a book like this. China has effectively walled off large parts of Tibet from serious scrutiny by journalists and diplomats. Demick, former Beijing bureau chief of the LA Times whose previous book was about North Korea, writes about the “checkpoints . . . tank traps, barricades” designed to keep prying eyes out of places such as Ngaba. I was a reporter in China when the protests broke out across Tibet in 2008. A colleague had already attempted unsuccessfully to get into Ngaba so I was sent to try what were considered less sensitive areas.

On one trip, armed police were waiting for me at the check-in for a connecting flight to a Tibetan town. I managed to make it up on to the Tibetan plateau by a different route but, after half a day of reporting, attracted the attention of the local security bureau. They followed me everywhere in their black Toyota Land Cruiser, intimidating everyone I tried to talk to into silence. When I departed, an official filmed me at the airport, from check-in all the way to the aircraft, just to make sure I had left town.

Yet despite such difficulties, Demick has pieced together a fascinating history of Ngaba since the Red Army first arrived in the region in the 1930s during the Long March. She managed to travel to the town at less tense times, when the guard was down, and has mined the exile community who followed the Dalai Lama to Dharamsala in northern India.

The book is built around a small number of compelling characters — their life stories meticulously woven together with the major episodes in recent history that they witnessed. There is Gonpo, the daughter of the last Mei king, the semi-feudal ruler of the Ngaba area before the Chinese invasion in 1951, who as a young girl wore robes with a trimming of otter fur. She and her family were forced to leave Ngaba in 1958, in what turned out to be the start of Mao Zedong’s drive for collectivised agriculture that led to years of failed harvests. This traumatic period, which devastated Tibetan society, is usually known as “58” but also as dhulok, or the “collapse of time”.

Tsegyam, another of Demick’s subjects, was nearly expelled from school for laughing during Mao’s funeral, but he came of age during the 1980s, a brief moment of liberal hope for Tibetans, when party general secretary Hu Yaobang offered autonomy and monasteries were rebuilt. Tsegyam became a teacher and encouraged the learning of Tibetan history and language, angry at the suggestion it was only for monks and the old. He was arrested for hanging “Free Tibet” banners around Ngaba and was in jail in March 1989 when Beijing imposed martial law on the Tibetan capital — three months before the tanks rolled into Tiananmen.

Tall and good-looking, Tsepey initially prospered during the 1990s, when Beijing pushed economic development and rigid cultural assimilation in Tibet. He made good money as a member of a group of dancers who put on sanitised shows of Tibetan culture for Chinese tourists: “Tibetans and Chinese come from a single mother,” went one of the songs. But, weary of slights from Chinese colleagues, he left. He was arrested in 2006 for distributing CDs of the Dalai Lama’s teachings, whose very image it had become a criminal offence to own.

The Tibet that Demick describes reeks of colonialism. The historical relationship between Tibet and China is deeply complex and she recognises that many Tibetans welcome the economic progress that has come with being part of post-Mao China. But that modernity has been imposed from above in a high-handed manner. She details not just the mass migration of Han Chinese and destruction of large parts of the way that culture is passed between generations but also the more subtle elements — the shakedowns that Tibetans suffer from Chinese police, the ban, in effect, on getting a passport and the auctions of public land that exclude Tibetans. In its efforts to weed out any political opposition in the region, Beijing has criminalised large parts of Tibetan culture.

The protests and riots that began in Lhasa in March 2008, partly as a response to these policies, were not just a pivotal moment for Tibet — they also changed China. Beijing’s current belligerent mood is usually attributed to Xi Jinping, president since 2013, but Xi has been riding forces that were unleashed in 2008. That was the year that the Olympics boosted Chinese self-esteem and the financial crash shattered illusions about American omnipotence. But before that the Tibetan unrest provoked a powerfully anti-western sentiment among Chinese leaders and a paranoia about enemies within.

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That same paranoia has driven the aggressive policies of the past few years in other parts of the periphery — in Xinjiang, where up to 2m people have been imprisoned in camps, and the new security law that is squashing autonomy in Hong Kong. The liberal moment in Tibet in the 1980s was a rare experiment in multiculturalism in a country whose population is genuinely multicultural, but it was doomed by the brittle side of the Communist party. The shrill nationalism the party has deployed since Tiananmen cannot abide a competing narrative about the country’s history; and its insecure leaders cannot cope with individuals, whether it be the Dalai Lama or Joshua Wong, who enjoy greater legitimacy in the eyes of some of the population than they do.

In their own way, the self-immolations have also been a challenge to the Dalai Lama and his doctrine of non-violence. Demick ends her book with a wistful reflection on how he has been losing his battle to keep the Tibetan cause alive. Years of negotiation with Beijing about his return have gone nowhere. His “middle way” concept for autonomy within China is essentially the “one country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong that Beijing has just torn up. And when he eventually dies, the obscure succession process is likely to be manipulated by China so that there are two claimants to be the next Dalai Lama — one nominated from Dharamsala, one by Beijing.

She describes how whenever the Dalai Lama receives visits from Jewish leaders, he interrogates them on how to preserve a civilisation in exile. Asked if China has won, he contents himself with the belief that Beijing’s economic power is not supported by moral principles. The Chinese are “very weak”, he tells Demick. “The whole society is full of suspicion and full of distrust.”

Eat The Buddha: The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town, by Barbara Demick, Random House RRP$28/Granta RRP£18.99, 352 pages

Geoff Dyer is the FT’s analysis editor and a former Beijing bureau chief

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